A Daughter Of The Land by Gene Stratton-Porter
XVI. The Work of the Sun
Before Kate awakened the following morning George was out feeding the horses, cattle, and chickens, doing the milking, and working like the proverbial beaver. By the time breakfast was ready, he had convinced himself that he was a very exemplary man, while he expected Kate to be convinced also. He stood ready and willing to forgive her for every mean deceit and secret sin he ever had committed, or had it in his heart to commit in the future. All the world was rosy with him, he was flying with the wings of hope straight toward a wonderful achievement that would bring pleasure and riches, first to George Holt, then to his wife and children, then to the old aunt he really cared more for than any one else.
Incidentally, his mother might have some share, while he would bring such prosperity and activity to the village that all Walden would forget every bad thing it had ever thought or known of him, and delight to pay him honour. Kate might have guessed all this when she saw the pails full of milk on the table, and heard George whistling "Hail the Conquering Hero Comes," as he turned the cows into the pasture; but she had not slept well. Most of the night she had lain staring at the ceiling, her brain busy with calculations, computations, most of all with personal values.
She dared not be a party to anything that would lose Aunt Ollie her land; that was settled; but if she went into the venture herself, if she kept the deeds in Aunt Ollie's name, the bank account in hers, drew all the checks, kept the books, would it be safe? Could George buy timber as he thought; could she, herself, if he failed? The children were old enough to be in school now, she could have much of the day, she could soon train Polly and Adam to do even more than sweep and run errands; the scheme could be materialized in the Bates way, without a doubt; but could it be done in a Bates way, hampered and impeded by George Holt? Was the plan feasible, after all? She entered into the rosy cloud enveloping the kitchen without ever catching the faintest gleam of its hue. George came to her the instant he saw her and tried to put his arm around her. Kate drew back and looked at him intently.
"Aw, come on now, Kate," he said. "Leave out the heroics and be human. I'll do exactly as you say about everything if you will help me wheedle Aunt Ollie into letting me have the money."
Kate stepped back and put out her hands defensively: "A rare bargain," she said, "and one eminently worthy of you. You'll do what I say, if I'll do what you say, without the slightest reference as to whether it impoverishes a woman who has always helped and befriended you. You make me sick!"
"What's biting you now?" he demanded, sullenly.
Kate stood tall and straight before and above him
"If you have a good plan, if you can prove that it will work, what is the necessity for 'wheedling' anybody? Why not state what you propose in plain, unequivocal terms, and let the dear, old soul, who has done so much for us already, decide what she will do?"
"That's what I meant! That's all I meant!" he cried.
"In that case, 'wheedle' is a queer word to use."
"I believe you'd throw up the whole thing; I believe you'd let the chance to be a rich woman slip through your fingers, if it all depended on your saying only one word you thought wasn't quite straight," he cried, half in assertion, half in question.
"I honour you in that belief," said Kate. "I most certainly would."
"Then you turn the whole thing down? You won't have anything to do with it?" he cried, plunging into stoop-shouldered, mouth- sagging despair.
"Oh, I didn't say that!" said Kate. "Give me time! Let me think! I've got to know that there isn't a snare in it, from the title of the land to the grade of the creek bed. Have you investigated that? Is your ravine long enough and wide enough to dam it high enough at our outlet to get your power, and yet not back water on the road, and the farmers above you? Won't it freeze in winter? and can you get strong enough power from water to run a large saw? I doubt it!"
"Oh, gee! I never thought about that!" he cried.
"And if it would work, did you figure the cost of a dam into your estimate of the building and machinery?"
He snapped his fingers in impatience.
"By heck!" he cried, "I forgot that, too! But that wouldn't cost much. Look what we did in that ravine just for fun. Why, we could build that dam ourselves!"
"Yes, strong enough for conditions in September, but what about the January freshet?" she said.
"Croak! Croak! You blame old raven," cried George.
"And have you thought," continued Kate, "that there is no room on the bank toward town to set your mill, and it wouldn't be allowed there, if there were?"
"You bet I have!" he said defiantly. "I'm no such slouch as you think me. I've even stepped off the location!"
"Then," said Kate, "will you build a bridge across the ravine to reach it, or will you buy a strip from Linn and build a road?"
George collapsed with a groan.
"That's the trouble with you," said Kate. "You always build your castle with not even sand for a foundation. The most nebulous of rosy clouds serve you as perfectly as granite blocks. Before you go glimmering again, double your estimate to cover a dam and a bridge, and a lot of incidentals that no one ever seems able to include in a building contract. And whatever you do, keep a still head until we get these things figured, and have some sane idea of what the venture would cost."
"How long will it take?" he said sullenly.
"I haven't an idea. I'd have to go the Hartley and examine the records and be sure that there was no flaw in the deeds to the land; but the first thing is to get a surveyor and know for sure if you have a water-power that will work and not infringe on your neighbours. A thing like this can't be done in a few minutes' persuasive conversation. It will take weeks."
It really seemed as if it would take months. Kate went to Walden that afternoon, set the children playing in the ravine while she sketched it, made the best estimate she could of its fall, and approved the curve on the opposite bank which George thought could be cleared for a building site and lumber yard. Then she added a location for a dam and a bridge site, and went home to figure and think. The further she went in these processes the more hopeless the project seemed. She soon learned that there must be an engine with a boiler to run the saw. The dam could be used only to make a pond to furnish the water needed; but at that it would be cheaper than to dig a cistern or well. She would not even suggest to Aunt Ollie to sell any of the home forty. The sale of the remainder at the most hopeful price she dared estimate would not bring half the money needed, and it would come in long-time payments. Lumber, bricks, machinery, could not be had on time of any length, while wages were cash every Saturday night.
"It simply can't be done," said Kate, and stopped thinking about it, so far as George knew.
He was at once plunged into morose moping; he became sullen and indifferent about the work, ugly with Kate and the children, until she was driven almost frantic, and projects nearly as vague as some of George's began to float through her head.
One Saturday morning Kate had risen early and finished cleaning up her house, baking, and scrubbing porches. She had taken a bath to freshen and cool herself and was standing before her dresser, tucking the last pins in her hair, when she heard a heavy step on the porch and a loud knock on the screen door. She stood at an angle where she could peep; she looked as she reached for her dress. What she saw carried her to the door forgetful of the dress. Adam, Jr., stood there, white and shaken, steadying himself against the casing.
"Adam!" cried Kate. "Is Mother --?"
He shook his head.
"Father --?" she panted.
He nodded, seeming unable to speak. Kate's eyes darkened and widened. She gave Adam another glance and opened the door. "Come in," she said. "When did it happen? How did he get hurt?"
In that moment she recalled that she had left her father in perfect health, she had been gone more than seven years. In that time he could not fail to illness; how he had been hurt was her first thought. As she asked the question, she stepped into her room and snatched up her second best summer dress, waiting for Adam to speak as she slipped into it. But speaking seemed to be a very difficult thing for Adam. He was slow in starting and words dragged and came singly: "Yesterday -- tired -- big dinner -- awful hot -- sunstroke -- "
"He's gone?" she cried.
Adam nodded in that queer way again.
"Why did you come? Does Mother want me?" the questions leaped from Kate's lips; her eyes implored him. Adam was too stricken to heed his sister's unspoken plea.
"Course," he said. "All there -- your place -- I want you. Only one in the family -- not stark mad!"
Kate straightened tensely and looked at him again. "All right," she said. "I can throw a few things in my telescope, write the children a note to take to their father in the field, and we can stop in Walden and send Aunt Ollie out to cook for them; I can go as well as not, for as long as Mother wants me."
"Hurry!" said Adam.
In her room Kate stood still a second, her eyes narrow, her underlip sucked in, her heart almost stopped. Then she said aloud: "Father's sons have wished he would die too long for his death to strike even the most tolerant of them like that. Something dreadful has happened. I wonder to my soul -- !"
She waited until they were past Hartley and then she asked suddenly: "Adam, what is the matter?"
Then Adam spoke: "I am one of a pack of seven poor fools, and every other girl in the family has gone raving mad, so I thought I'd come after you, and see if you had sense, or reason, or justice, left in you."
"What do you want of me?" she asked dazedly.
"I want you to be fair, to be honest, to do as you'd be done by. You came to me when you were in trouble," he reminded her.
Kate could not prevent the short laugh that sprang to her lips, nor what she said: "And you would not lift a finger; young Adam made his mother help me. Why don't you go to George for what you want?"
Adam lost all self-control and swore sulphurously.
"I thought you'd be different," he said, "but I see you are going to be just like the rest of the --!"
"Stop that!" said Kate. "You're talking about my sisters -- and yours. Stop this wild talk, and tell me exactly what is the matter."
"I'm telling nothing," said Adam. "You can find out what is the matter and go it with the rest of them, when you get there. Mother said this morning she wished you were there, because you'd be the only sane one in the family, so I thought I'd bring you; but I wish now I hadn't done it, for it stands to reason that you will join the pack, and run as fast as the rest of the wolves."
"From a prairie fire, or to a carcass?" asked Kate.
"I told you, you could find out when you got there. I'm not going to have them saying I influenced you, or bribed you," he said.
"Do you really think that they think you could, Adam?" asked Kate, wonderingly.
"I have said all I'm going to say," said Adam, and then he began driving his horse inhumanely fast, for the heat was deep, slow, and burning.
"Adam, is there any such hurry?" asked Kate. "You know you are abusing your horse dreadfully."
Adam immediately jerked the horse with all his might, and slashed the length of its body with two long stripes that rapidly raised in high welts, so Kate saw that he was past reasoning with and said no other word. She tried to think who would be at home, how they would treat her, the Prodigal, who had not been there in seven years; and suddenly it occurred to Kate that, if she had known all she now knew in her youth, and had the same decision to make again as when she knew nothing, she would have taken wing, just as she had. She had made failures, she had hurt herself, mind and body, but her honour, her self-respect were intact. Suddenly she sat straight. She was glad that she had taken a bath, worn a reasonably decent dress, and had a better one in the back of the buggy. She would cut the Gordian knot with a vengeance. She would not wait to see how they treated her, she would treat them! As for Adam's state, there was only one surmise she could make, and that seemed so incredible, she decided to wait until her mother told her all about whatever the trouble was.
As they came in sight of the house, queer feelings took possession of Kate. She struggled to think kindly of her father; she tried to feel pangs of grief over his passing. She was too forthright and had too good memory to succeed. Home had been so unbearable that she had taken desperate measures to escape it, but as the white house with its tree and shrub filled yard could be seen more plainly, Kate suddenly was filled with the strongest possessive feeling she ever had known. It was home. It was her home. Her place was there, even as Adam had said. She felt a sudden revulsion against herself that she had stayed away seven years; she should have taken her chances and at least gone to see her mother. She leaned from the buggy and watched for the first glimpse of the tall, gaunt, dark woman, who had brought their big brood into the world and stood squarely with her husband, against every one of them, in each thing he proposed.
Now he was gone. No doubt he had carried out his intentions. No doubt she was standing by him as always. Kate gathered her skirts, but Adam passed the house, driving furiously as ever, and he only slackened speed when he was forced to at the turn from the road to the lane. He stopped the buggy in the barnyard, got out, and began unharnessing the horse. Kate sat still and watched him until he led it away, then she stepped down and started across the barnyard, down the lane leading to the dooryard. As she closed the yard gate and rounded a widely spreading snowball bush, her heart was pounding wildly. What was coming? How would the other boys act, if Adam, the best balanced man of them all, was behaving as he was? How would her mother greet her? With the thought, Kate realized that she was so homesick for her mother that she would do or give anything in the world to see her. Then there was a dragging step, a short, sharp breath, and wheeling, Kate stood facing her mother. She had come from the potato patch back of the orchard, carrying a pail of potatoes in each hand. Her face was haggard, her eyes bloodshot, her hair falling in dark tags, her cheeks red with exertion. They stood facing each other. At the first glimpse Kate cried, "Oh, Mother," and sprang toward her. Then she stopped, while her heart again failed her, for from the astonishment on her mother's face, Kate saw instantly that she was surprised, and had neither sent for nor expected her. She was nauseatingly disappointed. Adam had said she was wanted, had been sent for. Kate's face was twitching, her lips quivering, but she did not hesitate more than an instant.
"I see you were not expecting me," she said. "I'm sorry. Adam came after me. I wouldn't have come if he hadn't said you sent for me."
Kate paused a minute hopefully. Her mother looked at her steadily.
"I'm sorry," Kate repeated. "I don't know why he said that."
By that time the pain in her heart was so fierce she caught her breath sharply, and pressed her hand hard against her side. Her mother stooped, set down the buckets, and taking off her sunbonnet, wiped the sweat from her lined face with the curtain.
"Well, I do," she said tersely.
"Why?" demanded Kate.
"To see if he could use you to serve his own interests, of course," answered her mother. "He lied good and hard when he said I sent for you; I didn't. I probably wouldn't a-had the sense to do it. But since you are here, I don't mind telling you that I never was so glad to see any one in all my born days."
Mrs. Bates drew herself full height, set her lips, stiffened her jaw, and again used the bonnet skirt on her face and neck. Kate picked up the potatoes, to hide the big tears that gushed from her eyes, and leading the way toward the house she said: "Come over here in the shade. Why should you be out digging potatoes?"
"Oh, they's enough here, and willing enough," said Mrs. Bates. "Slipped off to get away from them. It was the quietest and the peacefullest out there, Kate. I'd most liked to stay all day, but it's getting on to dinner time, and I'm short of potatoes."
"Never mind the potatoes," said Kate. "Let the folks serve themselves if they are hungry."
She went to the side of the smoke house, picked up a bench turned up there, and carrying it to the shady side of a widely spreading privet bush, she placed it where it would be best screened from both house and barn. Then setting the potatoes in the shade, she went to her mother, put her arm around her, and drew her to the seat. She took her handkerchief and wiped her face, smoothed back her straggled hair, and pulling out a pin, fastened the coil better.
"Now rest a bit," she said, "and then tell me why you are glad to see me, and exactly what you'd like me to do here. Mind, I've been away seven years, and Adam told me not a word, except that Father was gone."
"Humph! All missed the mark again," commented Mrs. Bates dryly. "They all said he'd gone to fill you up, and get you on his side."
"Mother, what is the trouble?" asked Kate. "Take your time and tell me what has happened, and what you want, not what Adam wants."
Mrs. Bates relaxed her body a trifle, but gripped her hands tightly together in her lap.
"Well, it was quick work," she said. "It all came yesterday afternoon just like being hit by lightening. Pa hadn't failed a particle that any one could see. Ate a big dinner of ham an' boiled dumplings, an' him an' Hiram was in the west field. It was scorchin' hot an' first Hiram saw, Pa was down. Sam Langley was passin' an' helped get him in, an' took our horse an' ran for Robert. He was in the country but Sam brought another doctor real quick, an' he seemed to fetch Pa out of it in good shape, so we thought he'd be all right, mebby by morning, though the doctor said he'd have to hole up a day or two. He went away, promisin' to send Robert back, and Hiram went home to feed. I set by Pa fanning him an' putting cloths on his head. All at once he began to chill.
"We thought it was only the way a-body was with sunstroke, and past pilin' on blankets, we didn't pay much attention. He said he was all right, so I went to milk. Before I left I gave him a drink, an' he asked me to feel in his pants pocket an' get the key an' hand him the deed box, till he'd see if everything was right. Said he guessed he'd had a close call. You know how he was. I got him the box and went to do the evening work. I hurried fast as I could. Coming back, clear acrost the yard I smelt burning wool, an' I dropped the milk an' ran. I dunno no more about just what happened 'an you do. The house was full of smoke. Pa was on the floor, most to the sitting-room door, his head and hair and hands awfully burned, his shirt burned off, laying face down, and clear gone. The minute I seen the way he laid, I knew he was gone. The bed was pourin' smoke and one little blaze about six inches high was shootin' up to the top. I got that out, and then I saw most of the fire was smothered between the blankets where he'd thrown them back to get out of the bed. I dunno why he fooled with the lamp. It always stood on the little table in his reach, but it was light enough to read fine print. All I can figure is that the light was going out of his eyes, an' he thought it was gettin' dark, so he tried to light the lamp to see the deeds. He was fingerin' them when I left, but he didn't say he couldn't see them. The lamp was just on the bare edge of the table, the wick way up an' blackened, the chimney smashed on the floor, the bed afire."
"Those deeds are burned?" gasped Kate. "All of them? Are they all gone?"
"Every last one," said Mrs. Bates.
"Well, if one is gone, thank God they all are," said Kate.
Her mother turned swiftly and caught her arm.
"Say that again!" she cried eagerly.
"Maybe I'm wrong about it, but it's what I think," said Kate. "If the boys are crazy over all of them being gone, they'd do murder if part had theirs, and the others had not."
Mrs. Bates doubled over on Kate's shoulder suddenly and struggled with an inward spasm.
"You poor thing," said Kate. "This is dreadful. All of us know how you loved him, how you worked together. Can you think of anything I can do? Is there any special thing the matter?"
"I'm afraid!" whispered Mrs. Bates. "Oh, Katie, I'm so afraid. You know how set he was, you know how he worked himself and all of us -- he had to know what he was doing, when he fought the fire till the shirt burned off him" -- her voice dropped to a harsh whisper -- "what do you s'pose he's doing now?"
Any form of religious belief was a subject that never had been touched upon or talked of in the Bates family. Money was their God, work their religion; Kate looked at her mother curiously.
"You mean you believe in after life?" she asked.
"Why, I suppose there must be something," she said.
"I think so myself," said Kate. "I always have. I think there is a God, and that Father is facing Him now, and finding out for the first time in his experience that he is very small potatoes, and what he planned and slaved for amounted to nothing, in the scheme of the universe. I can't imagine Father being subdued by anything on earth, but it appeals to me that he will cut a pathetic figure before the throne of an Almighty God."
A slow grin twisted Mrs. Bates' lips.
"Well, wherever he went," she said, "I guess he found out pretty quick that he was some place at last where he couldn't be boss."
"I'm very sure he has," said Kate, "and I am equally sure the discipline will be good for him. But his sons! His precious sons! What are they doing?"
"Taking it according to their bent," said Mrs. Bates. "Adam is insane, Hiram is crying."
"Have you had a lawyer?" asked Kate.
"What for? We all know the law on this subject better than we know our a, b, c's."
"Did your deed for this place go, too?" asked Kate.
"Yes," said Mrs. Bates, "but mine was recorded, none of the others were. I get a third, and the rest will be cut up and divided, share and share alike, among all of you, equally. I think it's going to kill Adam and ruin Andrew."
"It won't do either. But this is awful. I can see how the boys feel, and really, Mother, this is no more fair to them than things always have been for the girls. By the way, what are they doing?"
"Same as the boys, acting out their natures. Mary is openly rejoicing. So is Nancy Ellen. Hannah and Bertha at least can see the boys' side. The others say one thing before the boys and another among themselves. In the end the girls will have their shares and nobody can blame them. I don't myself, but I think Pa will rise from his grave when those farms are torn up."
"Don't worry," said Kate. "He will have learned by now that graves are merely incidental, and that he has no option on real estate where he is. Leave him to his harp, and tell me what you want done."
"I want you to see that it was all accidental. I want you to take care of me. I want you should think out the fair thing for all of us to do. I want you to keep sane and cool-headed and shame the others into behaving themselves. And I want you to smash down hard on their everlasting, 'why didn't you do this?' and 'why didn't you do that?' I reckon I've been told five hundred times a-ready that I shouldn't a-give him the deeds. Josie say it, an' then she sings it. Not give them to him! How could I help giving them to him? He'd a-got up and got them himself if I hadn't -- "
"You have cut out something of a job for me," said Kate, "but I'll do my best. Anyway, I can take care of you. Come on into the house now, and let me clean you up, and then I'll talk the rest of them into reason, if you stand back of me, and let them see I'm acting for you."
"You go ahead," said Mrs. Bates. "I'll back whatever you say. But keep them off of me! Keep them off of me!"
After Kate had bathed her mother, helped her into fresh clothes, and brushed her hair, she coaxed her to lie down, and by diplomatic talk and stroking her head, finally soothed her to sleep. Then she went down and announced the fact, asked them all to be quiet, and began making her way from group to group in an effort to restore mental balance and sanity. After Kate had invited all of them to go home and stay until time for the funeral Sunday morning, and all of them had emphatically declined, and eagerly had gone on straining the situation to the breaking point, Kate gave up and began setting the table. When any of them tried to talk or argue with her she said conclusively: "I shall not say one word about this until Monday. Then we will talk things over, and find where we stand, and what Mother wants. This would be much easier for all of us, if you'd all go home and calm down, and plan out what you think would be the fair and just thing to do."
Before evening Kate was back exactly where she left off, for when Mrs. Bates came downstairs, her nerves quieted by her long sleep, she asked Kate what would be best about each question that arose, while Kate answered as nearly for all of them as her judgment and common sense dictated; but she gave the answer in her own way, and she paved the way by making a short, sharp speech when the first person said in her hearing that "Mother never should have given him the deeds." Not one of them said that again, while at Kate's suggestion, mentally and on scraps of paper, every single one of them figured that one third of sixteen hundred and fifty was five hundred and fifty; subtracted from sixteen hundred and fifty this left one thousand one hundred, which, divided by sixteen, save sixty-eight and three fourths. This result gave Josie the hysterics, strong and capable though she was; made Hiram violently ill, so that he resorted to garden palings for a support; while Agatha used her influence suddenly, and took Adam, Jr., home.
As she came to Kate to say that they were going, Agatha was white as possible, her thin lips compressed, a red spot burning on either cheek.
"Adam and I shall take our departure now, Katherine," she said, standing very stiffly, her head held higher than Kate ever had thought it could be lifted. Kate put her arm around her sister- in-law and gave her a hearty hug: "Tell Adam I'll do what I think is fair and just; and use all the influence I have to get the others to do the same," she said.
"Fruitless!" said Agatha. "Fruitless! Reason and justice have departed from this abode. I shall hasten my pace, and take Adam where my influence is paramount. The state of affairs here is deplorable, perfectly deplorable! I shall not be missed, and I shall leave my male offspring to take the place of his poor, defrauded father."
Adam, 3d, was now a tall, handsome young man of twenty-two, quite as fond of Kate as ever. He wiped the dishes, and when the evening work was finished, they talked with Mrs. Bates until they knew her every wish. The children had planned for a funeral from the church, because it was large enough to seat the family and friends in comfort; but when they mentioned this to Mrs. Bates, she delivered an ultimatum on the instant: "You'll do no such thing!" she cried. "Pa never went to that church living; I'll not sanction his being carried there feet first, when he's helpless. And we'll not scandalize the neighbours by fighting over money on Sunday, either. You'll all come Monday morning, if you want anything to say about this. If you don't, I'll put through the business in short order. I'm sick to my soul of the whole thing. I'll wash my hands of it as quick as possible."
So the families all went to their homes; Kate helped her mother to bed; and then she and Adam, 3d, tried to plan what would be best for the morrow; afterward they sat down and figured until almost dawn.
"There's no faintest possibility of pleasing everyone," said Kate. "The level best we can do is to devise some scheme whereby everyone will come as nearly being satisfied as possible."
"Can Aunt Josie and Aunt Mary keep from fighting across the grave?" asked Adam.
"Only Heaven knows," said Kate.